Israel Looks to Portland for New Mobility Solutions

Noah Siegel, who is responsible for transportation development in the city of Portland, Oregon, tells how the city become the torch-bearer of progressive transportation in the United States, and how big cities can find the right balance between the planners, the entrepreneurs, and the public.

By Meirav Moran

“Transportation is freedom,” says Noah Siegel when he arrives for our meeting at a café on Herzl street in Tel Aviv, riding on a rented scooter that he got in Jaffa. “We have to make it possible for entrepreneurs to develop and to offer a variety of mobility solutions based on the cost-benefit analysis, and to let people choose the easiest and most cost-efficient trip for them at each moment.”

Siegel, who grew up to in a Jewish family in the United States and is married to an Israeli, is responsible for transportation development in the city of Portland, Oregon in the United States, and one of those responsible for overseeing the companies that were invited to deploy shared electric scooters in the city. In the warm spring and summer months, the scooters were distributed in the streets, and with the coming of winter, like the birds, they disappeared. The program was a limited pilot and Siegel explains that the rental companies are required to provide all the data to him and his staff about usage patterns relating to a variety of parameters, including time, location, and the characteristics of users. When the scooters return, it will be according to the conditions that will be set by the municipality.

Everyone is excited. Why should we make life difficult for scooters?

“Scooters are a promising idea and we are supportive, but if we are going to avoid disappointment, we have to introduce them close tracking of the types of trips and how they influence different aspects of urban life. When we have data, we can analyze them and decide how to integrate rental scooters with existing transportation modes. We will reintroduce when we determine, for instance, where the trips are taking place. At the moment, we have a lot of trips on the sidewalk, which is not ideal, to say the least. In order to make sure they stay on the streets, we need to set the rules for integrating them in mixed traffic. We also have to think about where we’re parking them, perhaps designating real estate in the public right of way, and to figure out who pays for the parking and how. I believe that at the end of the day, we will designate parking areas in the street, like we do for cars. These may also double as locations for charging stations. It’s very possible that there are other things we don’t know yet, without looking at the data, that will affect the integration of scooters into the field of transportation.”

Siegel (46) has been working for two decades in the public sector. He reached his current position with the City of Portland after working on public infrastructure projects at the Metro Regional Government, and was responsible for public engagement with business groups and residents on a number of controversial initiatives. Before that, he worked for the US State Department, where among other things he worked as an economic attaché in the Middle East, including a tour in Yemen. He lived two years in Israel, where he met his wife. Today, the couple lives in Portland with their two daughters.

“All around the world, drivers sit in traffic jams from the suburbs to the cities and believe that it’s their own personal problem. Everyone is waiting for a miracle: autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, shared vehicles, but it’s easy to sell people on futuristic ideas—the tougher thing to do is to solve actual problems today,” he says with a light sigh. “Electric vehicles are more and more common on the streets and in parking garages, and autonomous vehicles will no doubt do the same, or will just travel around empty all the time. But the infrastructure remains the same infrastructure.”

In Gush Dan they’re preparing the first light rail and metro. We are expecting that the new infrastructure will at least give us an alternative to traffic jams.

“I can’t say what’s right for Israel, because I don’t know the reality here well enough. I can say what’s happening to infrastructure in the U.S. Over 100 years ago they built subways, and 80 years ago we paved streets and freeways. In both cases, it seemed promising when everything was new. But now, a serious infrastructure crisis is fast approaching: the assets are ageing, the infrastructure in crumbling, and we don’t have a financial source to repair it. This is not an aesthetic issue of stations with peeling paint or lines losing money--the situation is just dangerous. In the countries of the Far East, they build the rail stations and the cities around them to maximize returns from the property value. Perhaps in this way there’s a chance to create a fixed source of revenue to pay for ongoing maintenance. In those regimes, it’s also easier to raise taxes when it’s necessary to restore infrastructure.”

And what about in the West?

“In the U.S., the public is less tolerant of new taxes. As long as cars run on gasoline, a portion of that price goes to the government, which builds the roads. In a world of electric vehicles, not to mention one where those vehicles are autonomous, the only way to raise revenue is to establish a price for using the road. The principle is similar to public transportation: the ticket price can be set according to the time and distance travelled. We also pay for parking according to the time we use it and, just like with parking, when we give our streets away for free there is always a shortage of space. If we don’t establish a price tag for our streets, we won’t have a funding source to maintain them.”

“It’s problematic. In slightly less than ten years, Uber and Lyft arrived in cities as innovative solutions. The public was excited by the integration of tech and taxis, and the founders recruited people who worked with the Obama Administration to sell the idea with the right messages: a solution to congestion, reducing traffic jams, a source of temporary employment for the unemployed, and a way to connect underserved low-income neighborhoods to the city center. This is how these companies conquered the cities, and now everyone realizes the truth: they took ridership from traditional public transit, added to traffic congestion, to the burden on public infrastructure, to air pollution and possibly also to traffic collisions as a result of additional vehicles in the streets. Despite this, it is hard to liberate ourselves from the current situation. In a place that values the free market, a ban on these companies threatens the political security of elected officials and results in endless legal complications.

“If I were to give one piece of advice to Tel Aviv, it would be: “Don’t allow Uber to come in here. There are enough transportation choices and the streets are already crowded enough. If you allow Uber to operate without conditionals that limit where and when the drivers can operate, the problems will be immediate. It’s true that if a person takes Uber to get to a night shift when there is little public transit service and they don’t want to wait for a bus, it’s a good option. The problem is that an Uber driver doesn’t work only at night. To make money, the driver has to operate during peak demand.”

A dynamic price should regulate demand. When it’s more expensive, there are fewer trips.

“I’m not aware of any instances [in the US] where dynamic pricing has been used to ease traffic congestion or the demand for private-for-hire vehicles. More often, what happens is that the private-for-hire companies increase the supply of cars in locations with the highest demand. As result, Uber is substituting for trips by other modes in central cities, and is tying up downtowns with congestion. Surge pricing in peak hours increases the profits for drivers and the companies in the best case, or perhaps only for the company in the worst case. Uber, Lyft, and the like are private companies that derive profits from public infrastructure. Surge prices don’t benefit the city or state that funds the infrastructure—it’s an unfair equation, especially if their private services don’t help solve public transportation problems.”

Taking unpopular steps

Siegel provides a reminder that transportation history replete with examples of ideas that were adopted by enthusiastic consumers, planners, and policymakers who didn’t understand their broader consequences. “In the middle of the last century, the automobile really took hold as a liberating force for human beings to travel anywhere at any time. The car really does free its owner from dependency on public transportation, but it is also a negative influence on cities, as we have all learned over time,” he said. “No city aspires to be like Los Angeles, where everyone has a car but it’s impossible to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time because of the sprawling distances that have to be covered and the traffic jams that are caused by everyone going everywhere by car. I’m sure the policymakers in Los Angeles didn’t intend to create such an urban disaster, and believed that the streets they were planning were providing freedom of movement to everyone. They didn’t imagine what the influences were from this giant transformation. It’s almost impossible to correct the outcome.”

In Portland, they decided towards the end of the last century to stop this deterioration, and as result the city is viewed as a progressive transportation leader in the United States. Some 30 years ago, a group of residents fought for the removal of a downtown parking lot, and succeeded in advocating for the creation of a public square in a place that was originally dedicated to hundreds of cars. Since then, the city has invested billions of dollars in public transportation, including streetcar and light rail that goes out to the suburbs, and dedicated bus lanes. At the same time, bicycle infrastructure was created on the streets. Portland was also one of the first cities to operate public bike share.

From 2000-2016, the city underwent significant economic development, which can be seen in escalating real estate prices and more than double the commute trips (travel to and from work), from approximately 60,000 daily trips to 140,000 in a city of about 500,000 residents. During that time the relative rate of per-capita automobile trips actually declined, but the overall number of trips from 30,000 to more than 60,000, which explains why travel times have become unbearable. The significant increase in bicycle use and the slight increase in public transit ridership testify to the fact that some residents choose the alternative transportation that the city provides for them but, on the whole, they are still a small number. Many of the new modes functions as substitutes for each other rather than replacing single-occupancy vehicle trips. 

It’s hard to say that your large investment in public transportation has justified itself.

“I agree that there’s a problem. The data shows that at a certain point people are moving back and forth between buses and bicycles, but not giving up their cars for alternative modes. I am not one of the experts who is saying that this is the end of traditional public transit but I do think that something has to change in the way we plan our infrastructure. The tradition is to develop engineering and economic models that predict future demand based on current trends. If you predict more vehicular traffic, you build more roads; if you think that travel demand will be generated by urban real estate, you build a subway.

In a faster changing reality, we have to make more of our decisions on the basis of existing infrastructure and change our performance and quality measures for them. Instead of asking how many cars are passing through over a certain period of time, we need to count how many people are moving. Instead of talking about the speed at which you can get from place to place, we need to talk about the safety of our streets. Until now we’ve done the easier things, now it’s time to do the hard things. To ask our residents to give up parking, to divide up our streets more equitably. I don’t think these are easy things to do.”

How do you convince the general public to convert a general-purpose lane to a bus lane?

“There is a basic question of equity when we decide who is entitled to more right-of-way—a Lexus carrying only one person or a bus with 50 passengers?”

In America, there are people who will say that the person sitting in a Lexus pays more taxes and therefore he deserves more space on the streets.

The answer is that taxes already paid for our streets and they’re congested all the time. More streets will bring more congestion, so we have to divide up what we have more efficiently. If we take one lane for a bus, this is the cheapest solution for everyone.”

And how do you convince people to give up parking?

You don’t take about sacrifice but rather about liberation. I’m not naïve—you have to use tools from political psychology. The story is not that we’re taking parking, but rather that we’re offering financial freedom. In Portland neighborhoods where we’re reducing the amount of parking, the residents can obtain a $99 annual pass for free use of bike share and streetcar, we will soon be adding the ability to use the pass on a number of other transportation modes. In my family, we have only one car, which is rare in the western United States. Having one less car means we have more money to do other things together as a family. One less car also means more freedom of movement—with the savings we can pay for more diverse mobility options.”

Do you see a lot of Portlanders giving up their cars?

“American cities transformed their residents into drivers because of planned sprawl. Even immigrants who come here from places where walking is the norm adopt the American custom of leaving the house with car keys in hand—they walk as far as the garage. Development in Portland is changing—our goal is to create densities and to reduce the travel distances with strategic planning to create a “20-minute city.” The intention is to revitalize the neighborhoods in such a way within 20 minutes everyone can walk to school, the doctor, the supermarket, or the Pizzeria. Not everyone will walk everywhere, and most Portlanders won’t give up on cars altogether, but many of them will drive much less frequently.”